You may think you know. Customers may see things differently.

By Emerson Schwartzkopf

Quiz time: Define your business in one phrase that best describes what you are in the market.

For the vast majority of those reading this, there’s a standard answer that hasn’t changed in the 17+ years I’ve covered the industry. Nice and simple. Two words.

Stone shop.

Oh, yeah?

Now, I’m not stupid enough to say that you’re wrong. I don’t want people tossing beer cans at my head at the next trade show, and I’d like you to continue flicking through the screens here and reading every issue. Of course you’re running a stone shop, as we ike to define fabricators.

To that great unknown part of the business equation out there – namely, customers – that definition conjures up a bunch of images. Sure, it’s an irritation when people call to inquire about landscape boulders or a couple tons of granite chips for a 2”-minus road bed. You don’t sell THAT kind of stone.

Then again, let’s round up a crowd of fabricators at a stone show. Everybody stands up at the start and then sit down if they haven’t done at least two of the following jobs at their business:

  • Carve and install a monument or mausoleum.
  • Clad a building in stone.
  • Create a conference table or other large piece of furniture for a paying customer.
  • Install a rock wall or cut-stone veneer.
  • Restored (not replaced) an existing stone installation.

Odds are good that few will remain standing. In five years, that number will grow smaller.

In the distant past of, say, the presidency of Jimmy Carter, the situation would be reversed. This is an industry where we’ve moved from jack-of-all-stones to specific niches. CNC technology helped. So did the development of worldwide direct sourcing of natural stone.

Then there’s the development of man-made materials, from the early burnt psychedelic Melmac looks of solid surface and quartz to the sophistication of today’s surfaces. For years, natural stone and manufactured slabs seemed to be two different camps of fabricators, but the Great Recession broke many of those barriers as shop owners worked frantically to keep from going broke themselves.

A fair number of Never Quartzers (or porcelain or sintered or whatever) remain out there and continue to be successful. However, put them in that room of fabricators, stand them up, and ask the same questions … and nearly everyone will end up sitting down. Stone shops, yes, but still different than Grandad’s and Dad’s kind of shop.

Too many discussions go on about defining shops and fabricators by the materials they use. Customers, however, aren’t likely to give two hoots and a holler. To them, it’s a bunch of esoteric yammering that gets old fast.

You aren’t selling them surfaces; the materials are a means to an end. Customers come to you to customize their space, either at home or the office. They want to improve the comfort or utility of a personal area. They seek to upgrade the style and ambience.

In short, you’re giving customers the opportunity to express themselves.

It’s not a silly notion. Companies do this everyday in designing and selling cars, smartphones and all sorts of goods. Consumers buy when they feel a company gets them with the right product.

Right now, fabricators have the most-fantastic palette of surfaces anyone’s ever seen. It’s an extremely rare architect or designer that’s seen 10% of the materials known to the average Joe or Jane making tops and backsplashes. You, as a fabricator, have the knowledge, right now, to sell something distinctive to a customer that lets them make a statement and really own their space.

Defining that ability in a few pithy words sure isn’t as easy as stone shop. But, the business is more than slicing up slabs. It’s time to recognize and reinforce what you’re really doing.